Calvinism’s Compatibilism and the Problem of Choice in Scripture and Life

When people reject Calvinism and its micro-determinism through compatibilism and decretal theology, some Calvinists retort that we are exalting the free will of man over God’s sovereignty. Of course, that is a straw man. We are exalting God’s Word, thereby exalting God because God’s Word depicts man and woman as having libertarian free will when properly defined. (See my article “Can Man Endowed with Libertarian Free Will Live Righteously Forever in Heaven?”). I contend that no one can read Scripture without being constantly exposed to a myriad of commands with concomitant consequences; choices given by God, conditional promises made by God, and a host of simple statements that only make sense if people can actually choose to obey or disobey, act or refrain, trust or distrust. Such events permeate the Scripture from Genesis 2:16 through Revelation 22:18. First, let me define compatibilism and libertarianism.

COMPATIBILISM: Determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism (compatibilism is often called soft determinism). Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he has made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and hard determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each since they are the same. Rather, the difference is compatibilism simply contends people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire, and hard determinism says they are not. Therefore, according to compatibilism, moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as a person acting in accordance with his greatest desire even though the desire is determined.

LIBERTARIANISM: Man is not determined. He has the actual ability to choose between accessible options, at least in some scenarios. Libertarians contend determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility. Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can, therefore, act or refrain in the moral moment of decision, given the same past within a given range of options.

Extensivism (non-Calvinism) argues God endowed man with this ability, which is an aspect of being created in the image of God. God determines the range of options. Adam’s range of options, the result of creative grace, was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than man had prior to the fall. This lessening includes losing the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely on creative grace. In order to make an inherently righteous choice or one that is spiritually restorative, God had to provision redemptive gracegrace enablementswhich he did.

The following are typical of what we find on the pages of Scripture from cover to cover.

Joshua 24
Before Joshua gives Israel the challenge to forsake idolatry and serve God, he reminds them of what God had done for them in verses 1-13. Then he challenges them by saying, “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (Josh 24:14). This comment would make no sense if they were determined by God (via compatibilism) to be in idolatry in the first place. Nor would it make sense to challenge them to serve the Lord since if he determined them to be in idolatry, they could not obey the command. And if they were determined to serve him, they could not choose to remain in idolatry. It does not seem that anyone could legitimately deduce determinism from the scriptural language of this passage. It only makes sense as a conditional, where the Jews have a choice between accessible options. You may read Calvinist commentaries that interpret these passages quite libertarianly, even though that contradicts Calvinism at its very core.[1]

Verse 15 goes on to say, “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The first question is, how could it possibly be disagreeable if God has determined everything? The “if” introduces a conditional, not something predestined. Joshua, who had the same choice, states he has chosen to serve God. This passage gives every appearance that this is a choice that neither he nor they were predetermined to make.

The peoples’ response to Joshua does not indicate a predetermined choosing; they are deliberating. Verses 16-17: “The people answered and said, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods. For the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed.'”

This deliberation gives no indication of being merely a determined part of a determined process, but rather they seem to know this is a choice they need to make, and there will be consequences based on what they choose. Besides compatibilism hollowing out the scene of any intelligible congruence between the words and reality, it seems to make God either incapable of speaking clearly about reality as it truly is or intentionally misleading his people about reality. Additionally, note the complexity of their deliberations; they contain historical information, future consequences to be weighed, and a choice between not two but three optionsserve the gods your fathers served, or the gods of the Amorites, or Jehovah. Such a complex structure of deliberation is reflective of libertarian free beings considering accessible options rather than merely experiential, subjective deliberation in which they could not choose otherwise as in compatibilism.

1 Corinthians 10:13
Paul gave a promise to the Corinthians and by application to all Christians. “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13; see also Luke 21:36; Heb 2:3). To Extensivists (non-Calvinists), this is a blessed promise conditioned on whether we choose to trust God. If everything is determined, even the means, this promise is meaningless because God has determined through endowing man with compatible freedom that everything is as it is supposed to be; to wit, the one who sins was determined to choose sin freely, and the one who did not sin was determined to choose not to sin freely. Such promises in Scripture, daily experiences in life, jurisprudence, childrearing, marriage, ad infinitum motivate Calvinists and compatibilists to seek to lessen its deterministic nature, albeit unsuccessfully.

The meaninglessness can be seen in countless other conditional promises in Scripture. For example, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14). And “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24). Without importing determinism, no one would ever glean from these conditional statements anything other than humans can choose to ask or not ask, and whatever they choose to do, they could have chosen differently. Additionally, the nature of a conditional is that if you do not meet the condition (in this case, ask), you do not receive the promise (I will do it or you will receive, respectively).

As a reminder, given the nature of compatibilism, it is accurate to say that a compatibilist can exercise free choosing, but not a free choice, if free choice is understood in any sense to permit choosing differently in the moral moment of decision than the person did or is determined to choose. While a compatibilist choosing is free so long as it is according to his greatest desire, his greatest desire is the result of determinative antecedents. Therefore, since the past determines the ultimate desire from which the free choice is made, it is precisely correct to say compatibilism affords humans only with a determined free choice, that is, choosing in which there are no accessible options. Consequently, choices happen necessarily and not just certainly based on God knowing what the person will do.

The determinism entailed in compatibilism is not because of man’s sin or depravity. Nor is it limited to only good acts or pre-Christian acts. On the contrary, compatibilism’s micro-determinism is comprehensive so that whether a person rapes or stops a rape, gets drunk or refuses a drink, prays or does not pray, grows in Christ or does not grow as commanded, shares the gospel or does not share the gospel, he is doing precisely and only what God determined him to do.[2]

Without some choices of mankind being libertarianly free, both the Scripture and life become either tirelessly non-sensical or a depiction of God attempting to pull off the greatest deception imaginable. If you question this, pay attention to how Calvinists read, preach, teach and talk about the Scripture and life. Often they do so as though libertarian is true because one simply cannot deduce determinism from a galaxy of Scriptures or everyday life situations. This is not to say that some things are not determined. The crucial difference at this juncture between libertarianism and compatibilism is that libertarianism allows for some things to be determined and some to be undetermined, whereas compatibilism, Calvinism, only permits everything to be micro-determined. Therefore, Calvinism fails to be a biblically faithful perspective.

[1] John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Commentary on the Book of Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010). Donald K. Campbell, “Joshua,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, vol. 1, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Logos electronic edition.
[2] Although Calvinists creatively seek to ameliorate this reality, given the entailments of compatibilism, they are inevitably unsuccessful. For this reason, some refer to Calvinists as theological fatalists, which most Calvinists dislike. However, their avowed rejection of libertarian freedom, the entailments of compatibilism, and their belief that God knows the future because he predetermined it seem to allow this argument so long as it is not purely materialistic or overly mechanicalmaterialistic fatalism. This appears to be the result once you sift through the sophisticated but ineffective rhetoric. Mark Bernstein says, “With respect to human affairs, fatalism claims that we lack the power (capability, ability) to perform any actions other than the ones that we do, in fact, perform. Our belief that there are alternative courses of action available to our decisions and choices is mistaken. As a result, there is no such thing as (libertarian) free will. If, as many believe, this sort of freedom is necessary for the justified ascription of moral responsibility, then there can be no legitimate attributions of moral responsibility. As a result, the common assessments of persons being praiseworthy and blameworthy are unwarranted. It would be difficult to imagine any thesis whose truth would prove so destructive to our self-concept.” Mark Bernstein, “Fatalism” in The Oxford Handbook, 65.

Ronnie W. Rogers